Twist in Helman case puts VA in knots

How do you deal with a person like former VA executive Sharon Helman? Not with what the VA is trying to do.

Sorry to keep pulling this thread, but the more VA plows ahead with its efforts to convert its Title V senior executives to Title 38, the worse the idea seems. Title 38 would take away SES members’ rights to appeal adverse actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board. Instead, they’d face a three-member panel of peers, with the right to appeal to the Secretary.

Bob McDonald & Company needs Congressional approval for the change. The 10-page justification amounts to an admission that the leadership simply lacks the ability to manage senior executives under the same system of protections that apply everywhere else; rights that have been confirmed by case as constitutional rights, like it or not.

In my interview with federal employment attorney Debra D’Agostino, she expresses surprise at what VA is trying to do. In her opinion, and in the opinion of several other employment attorneys I’ve discussed it with, the conversion from Title V to Title 38 would make it less attractive to work for VA than for any other federal agency.

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True, VA is asking for authority to lift salaries of VA SES members. But D’Agostino says people wanting to work wouldn’t be motivated by the new salary levels, which would still be a fraction of what private-sector hospital administrators earn.

If civil service protections were taken away, D’Agostino (and others) said she can’t imagine why anyone would want to come to work at the VA.

Title 38 was developed specifically after World War II for a fresh reorganization of what we then called the Veterans Administration. It’s designed to offer peer review of misconduct by doctors, dentists and others who directly touch the veterans. It’s a poor fit for managers with operational and financial responsibility for large institutions. If anyone at VA disagrees, please call or write.

Right now, thanks to the flawed Choice Act Congress hastily passed in 2014, SESers exist in a sort of twilight of civil service protection. They have hurried appeal rights to MSPB, but only to judges and not to the board itself.

Back to Ms. Helman. Now an admitted felon, the former Phoenix VA medical center director avoided jail time this week by pleading guilty on an Al Capone-esque charge of lying on financial disclosure forms. Not on the main possibility she accepted $50,000 in trips, cars and show tickets from a former VA executive and her boss, one Dennis “Max” Lewis. She wasn’t specifically charged for accepting the gifts.

Helman’s case is long and complicated and it’s been covered exhaustively by the Arizona Republic. It was during her tenure in running the Carl T. Hayden Medical Center that whistleblowers brought up the allegations of long wait times for appointments, and that staff maintained phony records to hide it. VA leadership fired Helman as the fall-gal for a cascade of bad publicity and congressional wrath. She appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which upheld the firing — because of the gifts that went unreported by her, not because of the whistleblowers and the wait times. In fact, the wait times likely were developing long before Helman took the helm in Phoenix.

The government has well-established procedures for employee accountability. So what do you do with someone like a Sharon Helman, a person who presents questions on a number of fronts? Mainly, deal with reality. VA was responding to the wait times because it needed to roll heads to appease the gods on the Hill.

Before moving ahead with the Title V switch, if they in fact decide to do so, I’m betting such a bill would face lawsuits on constitutional grounds.